1. Alignment is Key

    I want to talk about Alignment. Anyone who’s ever needed a visit to the chiropractor knows that things don’t have to stray very far from center to start causing problems.

    In today’s startup community, there’s a lot of talk about rapid growth and how to achieve it. We live in a vibrant time for the web, and the B2C space is exploding with new startups every day. What isn’t talked about as much is how to take care of those users once they’re acquired and how to run the other aspects that take a startup from being a group of talented hackers in search of a business model to a fully formed company, an organization with arms and legs. There’s already a million articles out there that will help you decide if Zendesk, Tender, or one of their competitors will work for you. Tony Hsieh has literally written the book on why great Customer Support will keep your company healthy.

    Alignment is about the Golden Rule. Your goal is communicate to your customer that you not only understand their pain, but that it affects you. There’s a reason we sometimes refer to an in-depth customer support call as needing “hand-holding”. It’s because having someone hold your hand feels good, invokes trust, and steadies your feet. People want that feeling, even if you’re just screen-sharing with them.

    When I was working in Customer Support, I used to have a poster that hung next to my desk with a famous Steve Jobs quote: “If a user is having a problem, it’s our problem”. I saw that every day and tried to bake that ingredient of genuine concern into every ticket I responded to, and every phone call I answered. If you’ve ever been to an Apple store, it may seem like the company only hires jovial, intelligent, helpful people. A great deal of that is scripted. You should be okay with this. Just as much as customers need totems like their name being used a lot, employees need a backdrop of structure, and a certain level of scripting can bring that. If you trust your people and empower them, they won’t be afraid to go off-book, but someone has to know what the book says to know how much to diverge from it. When I was at Apple, they pushed us through their “Core” training which included a lot of psychology training about how to deal with upset customers and turn experiences around. Phrases like “surprise and delight” were thrown around, but the big thing that stood out to me was the way Apple teaches empathy. Whenever someone was upset, we all knew it wasn’t enough to just tell them we could solve their issue. We first had to go to the source of the pain with them in almost a miniature grieving process. I’m making a big deal about this, but it’s important. Let’s look at some basic principles on how to accomplish this.

    I’m heavily borrowing from Apple in these “Three As” of Customer Service.

    Acknowledge - Affirm that you understand your customer, assume any blame you deserve, and recognize that there is indeed a problem (angry customers often feel crazy, and can very easily feel judged as being stupid or making a mistake).

    Align - Come alongside your customer, letting them know that their problem matters to you and that you are affected by the fact that they are not happy.

    Assure - If you know there is a solution, promise the customer they will have it before the interaction is complete. If you don’t know the answer, or it’s a bug you can’t fix right away, promise them that you will do everything in your power to solve the issue AND that you will follow up with them about it either way.

    Once, we had a young woman come in who had recently lost her father, and on her iPhone were some voicemails he had left her before he passed away. It was the end of the day, and we had some time, so a couple of us sat with her and listened to her tell us tearful stories about him while we connected her iPhone to a MacBook with a male-male audio cable and starting recording those voicemails into Garageband. By the time her story was done, we had already burned her a CD with the audio files on it and given her back her iPhone. The look on her face told us all that it wasn’t just about having those recordings. It mattered to her why we had done it for her.

    So, how can you do this when you’ve got 100 tickets in your support queue and phones to answer, or when you’re busy hacking away at your product, trying to grow it and stamp out the fires that are causing the complaints in the first place? It’s tough. I think more companies should hire someone for support earlier in their life cycles.

    Align with your customers and they will align with you. When you have happy customers who are bragging on your behalf about how well taken care of they are, you can save enormous parts of your marketing and sales budgets. You will have customers that are on board with your values and mission because you were on board with them from the beginning. They feel like they are a part of your organization, and that your products have become a part of their lives. This is what drives growth, sales, and both social and financial capital investment.

    Beyond the financial benefit, I can also promise you that your life will be easier and happier if you’re answering questions from customers who believe in you to make them happy. It takes time to build this sort of track record, and it can be lost in a moment, so vigilance and consistency are hugely important, but if you can pull it off… you’ll never see your customers as a burden again (been there). Alignment is key.

  2. On Bedrooms and Beaches

    If the App Store has taught us anything, it’s that people love Secrets.

    If I gave you a sealed envelope and told you that you were never to open it; I daresay you would grow curious about its contents. Eventually, you might begin to suspect it was some great secret of dangerous or incriminating information that could do me harm if it came out. In fact, I’m willing to bet that most people holding such an envelope would fancy themselves to be in some position of power, believing they wield some unknown control over whomever’s secrets are contained in the envelope. Few would even consider the possibility that the envelope could be empty or contain some benign document. They would want to look, but doing so would break trust with whoever gave them the envelope, and possibly reveal nothing of interest. It’s Schrodinger’s blackmail.

    Our government is no different. It is comprised of people with curiosity, pride, and the same urges to find out things in secret. The difference is that when they break the trust we have placed in them, there isn’t much we can do about it. As we’ve seen, all the outcry from the people has led to little or no actual change in policy. When Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel displayed outrage at US phone-tapping, I have little doubt that was simply a display for the public, possibly even one that we requested. She’s a major world leader, and the head of Germany’s government, one of the most active in the Intelligence and Surveillance community. I find it hard to believe she wouldn’t be operating under the assumption that we were spying on her, as we spy on everyone. Even ourselves.

    To some degree, we owe a collective apology to all the guys in tin foil hats who have been covering up their laptop webcams for years. The NSA might not be mind-controlling you using your dental fillings, but they apparently know a lot more about us than we thought, or at least, they have the capability of doing so. All in the cause of freedom, right? Only the bad guys have anything to hide.

    Analogy time. If I walk in on someone in their underwear, they will almost certainly blush and cover up as I apologize and quickly close the door. Yet, we would have no problem seeing each other in swimwear which reveals just as much, and in some cases more. Why? Logically there is no difference between the two, but it’s about the intention of the garment and the preparedness of the wearer. One set is meant to be seen and the other is not… so our minds place value on one being “acceptable” and the other being “immodest”. It’s a trivial example perhaps, but to me it highlights the absurdity of the Federal government’s argument that only the guilty have anything to hide. Sometimes you want to be seen in a bathing suit, and sometimes you don’t want to be seen in underwear, despite the fact that they’re essentially the same thing.

    Sadly, this broken logic can be pervasive and even affect our own thinking. Things that we are used to hiding, we begin to believe are secret or wrong. The idea that we should accept invasion of privacy because only the bad guys have anything to hide is absurd. We have a right to hide, even if we don’t use it. The internet has become our beach and our bedroom, as we openly share massive amounts of information, but selectively keep some things private. We expect there to be a distinction between the two, and we trust the platforms that hold our information to respect the difference between our different types of communication and data.

    I don’t like the idea that just because someone has seen me in a bathing suit, it gives them the right to look through my underwear drawer.

  3. Giving vs. Helping - Further Thoughts on Sam Polk’s Confessional

    Along with the rest of the internet, about a month ago, I read Sam Polk’s NYT Op-Ed piece, For the Love of Money. If you have not read it, I strongly urge you to do so before you read any further here. Since Mr. Polk published that piece, it has gone to the front page of Hacker News, and been applauded around the web as a candid, honest, and revealing set of insights into the heart of a reformed Wall Street mammonite. I think it is good that he wrote the article, and I think it is good that it ends with an altar call for others to engage in more philanthropy and less hoarding. In no way do I want to cast aspersion on what I believe are Mr. Polk’s good intentions and sincere motivations. I do, however, want to dig deeper into the problems of wealth inequality, greed, and the obstacles that prevent a balanced world.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about Empathy lately, and deeply considering whether its a quality I exhibit to others. I find that I am, to my great loathing, quite poor in this regard. I hope I can lend my perspective on why this is the case for so many, and why selfishness, at the highest levels of wealth, or in poverty, is such a hard habit to break. It all comes down to economics and scale. Mark Cuban wrote about how when he was young, he would drive by the houses of the wealthy, and yearn for the day when he could live like them. I know that feel, all too well. I was an Apple Authorized Consultant for two years, doing a lot of work in private homes. I worked with the families of some of the wealthiest people in Atlanta, and regularly stood in the kitchens of millionaires. To say I was not jealous would be a lie. I constantly wondered how these people could rationalize buying their Mercedes’ and their Rolex watches while I puttered around in my beatup old Honda, barely making ends meet. During those two years, I made a little under 30k/year and either had roommates or lived at home rent free (I moved in with my dad for 9 months). The scale of waste that I perceived seemed pointless and sad, when so many people I knew needed the money. When I needed the money. I was confused at the world’s ideas of fairness when I would be greeted by a stay-at-home wife, dripping in jewelry, clearly bored out of her mind, and I had to solve all her technology problems. It made my doubt the value of my brain. I felt I had to be smarter than these people, so why was I working for them and not the other way around? I was angry.

    Fast forward to today, and the needle still hasn’t moved much. I make a bit more money, I live on my own, I have a better car, and things are looking up, but last year I lost a job, suffered a lot of personal heartache, and had some very rough times. It seems like every time I try to get ahead, something comes along and sweeps the rug out from under me. But is that really true? Is life really that unfair to poor little me?

    With age comes perspective, and I am young, so I cannot claim to be wise, but I learn more about myself every day. I have a newfound resolve in frugality because I began seeing my grocery store decisions in their context. I realized that when I casually tossed a loaf of bread in my shopping cart, that simple choice was as related to the scope and scale of my life as buying a Ferrari is to a billionaire. Just as to me, that choice seems absurd and unfair, so too, my access to food and shelter is a mere fantasy to roughly 1/3 of the world’s population. How can I judge the wealthy for making their choices of luxury while I decide to treat myself to a nice bit of cheese and wine while millions starve to death in Africa. Scott Alexander follows this thinking to an extreme in his essay on measuring financial decisions in terms of dead children.

    It’s about scale.

    And the solution to this works at a funny scale as well. At my comfortable but modest income, I can pat myself on the back for giving $25 to Kiva here and there, while Polk is working on starting a fund to raise millions of dollars for those in need. Good on him, and good on me I guess, but what are we really accomplishing? I hope we can do more than mollifying our consciences. In his article, “Efficient Charity”, Lesswrong.com contributor Yvain makes a great point that I want to elaborate on. His words below:

    If a high-powered lawyer who makes $1,000 an hour chooses to take an hour off to help clean up litter on the beach, he’s wasted the opportunity to work overtime that day, make $1,000, donate to a charity that will hire a hundred poor people for $10/hour to clean up litter, and end up with a hundred times more litter removed. If he went to the beach because he wanted the sunlight and the fresh air and the warm feeling of personally contributing to something, that’s fine. If he actually wanted to help people by beautifying the beach, he’s chosen an objectively wrong way to go about it. And if he wanted to help people, period, he’s chosen a very wrong way to go about it, since that $1,000 could save two people from malaria. Unless the litter he removed is really worth more than two people’s lives to him, he’s erring even according to his own value system.

    This, to me, is the crux. We all want to do something for a world we see in pain, but we don’t want to leave our comfortable lives or have to look misery and poverty directly in the face. That’s what documentaries are for, after all. I’ll make this personal. I recently donated a box of old clothes to Goodwill (an organization with debatable intentions, but you get the point). I was more than happy to give things I didn’t need to help someone anonymously, but a couple weeks ago, when Atlanta got down to 5 degrees at night, I didn’t go and actually clothe the homeless. I didn’t want to have to actually help anyone. I know where the homeless are in my city. I know that some people almost certainly suffered or died that night in the bitter temperatures. But I stayed in and cranked up the heat.

    Sam Polk has issued a challenge asking for others in the financial industry to set aside a portion of their bonus earnings (bonuses? what are those?) to be given away to those in need. A noble cause, certainly, but one that doesn’t require anything more than the stroke of a pen from donors with plenty to spare. Giving is easy, sterile, and even tax-deductible. Being someone who helps the world is messy, long, difficult, and full of sadness.

    If you have ideas on how we can all work together more closely and would like to reach out to Mr. Polk, I’m sure he would be happy to hear from you with other suggestions I may not have thought of here. I would also appreciate your ideas, but if you want to move the needle, he’s probably a better person to talk to. He’s got the money.

  4. A Letter I Wrote and Never Sent to my Granny (~2010?)

    Digging through some files on my computer, I found an old letter I’d written to my Granny during one of the hardest times of my life. My parents were recently divorced, I had been unemployed (and was still underemployed), and I was generally very unhappy.

    She had sent me some money and offered to fly me out to England to see everyone, an offer which I very stupidly declined. I have not seen my full English family since 2004, and I miss them terribly. I thought I had better focus on my work and life here in Atlanta, and kept pushing off the date that I would see them.

    It still hasn’t come.

    I think it’s always funny to find things like this. I wonder what her reaction would have been if I had ever sent it. I still haven’t seen her since 2004… I keep promising myself I’ll go, but never seem to have the time… what a weak excuse.

  5. 10 Things I Want in iOS 7

    WWDC is just around the corner, and we can expect to see new versions of OS X and iOS announced on June 10th. This is a blue sky list of things I’d like to see in iOS 7 or expect to be included. Several of these ideas are from Kevin Bandy, so he deserves credit for input on this post.

    1. Live, dynamic icons: Just like the “Live Tiles” on Windows 7, or some of the animated icons that appear on Android or Jailbroken iOS, I’d really love to see some dynamic icons showing up on my phone. We know it can be done, because Calendar has done it since launch. An open API that allows developers to show live stocks, weather, and time data would be great, and has really interesting implications beyond the simple notification badge in the corner of an app icon. Rather than a Push Notification showing a message in Notification Center and badging my app, a game (for example) could show me some more detailed information about my character’s status via the App Icon.

    2. Notification Center Tweaks: Notification Center is cool, but I’d love to see it change its name to “Access” and include hardware controls like Wifi, Brightness, and Volume. This has been a long-requested feature, and I’d like to see it finally come true.

    3. Ability to Set Default Browser / Navigation: Fans of Google Maps and Chrome would love this, and while it threatens Apple’s native offerings, Apple cares more about building a strong platform for their devices than simply pushing their own products. They even let Opera in the Mac App Store.

    4. Read Receipts per Sender: I can set Ring Tone, Text Tones, and Email VIP status per contact. I’d also like to be able to set whether or not an individual can see if I’ve read their iMessages or not.

    5. QR Scanner Built Into Camera App: Let’s face it, QR Codes are never going to see mass adoption until every camera in the world can detect them by default. They’re a cool idea, though, with lots of potential in the future “Internet of Things”, and I’d like to see Apple help push this technology in a good direction.

    6. Video Previews for Apps in the App Store: The App Store needs help in general, but some cool video content, especially on games would help developers make their presence shine.

    7. Geolocation and Time-Stamp on Newly Created Calendar Events and Contacts: This doesn’t seem that cool until you combine it with syntactic search and smart lists (eg. “All Contacts Created in Last 30 Days”). I want to be able to ask Siri questions like “Show me who I talked to yesterday” or “Show me everyone I met in San Francisco last week”. Cool, right? Totally possible.

    8. Tweak Orientation: Device orientation should be passed to apps on launch so they know what direction to begin in. The fast-app-switching tray should orient to landscape when the device is held that way. This is no-brainer stuff, and it gets in the way of my experience of the device.

    9. More Siri APIs for Audio and Video: Allow devs to write Siri commands into their apps “Search YouTube for videos of kittens”. This can sort of be done via Safari, but I’d really like to be able to query specific applications based on a keyword. This would, of course, require that developers register these private labels with Apple. Never get involved in a land war in Asia…

    10. Guest Mode: This would be huge in business and education. I want a slim level of multi-user support. This is, of course, more useful for iPads than iPhones, but would be a great feature to see across iOS, the way we have it in OS X.

    Let me know your other ideas in the comments below!

  6. Summer Guide to Ice Cream

    Summer is here now, and that means guiltless ice cream dates and popsicles galore! I thought I’d list a few of my favorites around the city of Atlanta.

    The Frosty Caboose

    image

    This place redefines the portion. It’s absolutely ridiculous how much ice cream you get for your money, and the flavors are really varied. This ice cream gets my pick if you’re looking for really creamy, rich deliciousness.

    King of Pops

    image

    These guys have been a stable at festivals and events since they launched, but you can pick up some tasty treats any day of the week at one of their mobile locations (see their website for a cart locator) or in some of their retail resellers.

    image

    Morelli’s

    image

    This place takes the cake for the best flavor variety. Only here can you expect to pick up crazy flavors like coconut-jalapeño and black pepper and strawberry. It’s a bit more expensive than your average ice cream parlour, so I like to come here for summer evening dinner dates, perhaps after a meal in Decatur or a movie at the Starlight Drive-In.

    These are just some favorites of mine, but I love discovering new spots, so if you have some favorite ice cream joints around town, let me know in the comments.

  7. Following up on my Mac Apps and Steam Library, I present the artwork from my gog.com game library.

    Following up on my Mac Apps and Steam Library, I present the artwork from my gog.com game library.

  8. Following up on my post about beautiful OS X Application icon art, I thought I’d post a photo of my entire Steam library. I love the effort that these developers put in. Also, see my gog.com library.

    Following up on my post about beautiful OS X Application icon art, I thought I’d post a photo of my entire Steam library. I love the effort that these developers put in. Also, see my gog.com library.

  9. One of the wonderful things about owning a Mac is the developer community that has arisen around the platform. For years, Apple computers and now iOS devices have distinguished themselves with rich, colorfully designed applications made with care and love. Designers have been a Mac-heavy crowd for decades now, and the wealth of beautiful design has been the result.
When I browse my Applications directory, I am sometimes struck by how beautiful all the icons are and on a Retina Display, these vibrant, playful icons are even more gorgeous. I thought I’d share with you all what my Applications directory looks like.
Some of the names are impossible to read because of how I had to resize the icons, so if you’d like the full list, here is is.

    One of the wonderful things about owning a Mac is the developer community that has arisen around the platform. For years, Apple computers and now iOS devices have distinguished themselves with rich, colorfully designed applications made with care and love. Designers have been a Mac-heavy crowd for decades now, and the wealth of beautiful design has been the result.

    When I browse my Applications directory, I am sometimes struck by how beautiful all the icons are and on a Retina Display, these vibrant, playful icons are even more gorgeous. I thought I’d share with you all what my Applications directory looks like.

    Some of the names are impossible to read because of how I had to resize the icons, so if you’d like the full list, here is is.

  10. New Places

    As some of you know by now, I’ve joined the team at TourBuzz and left my  position at BFA Technologies, where I’ve been for the last two years. The move was nothing short of bittersweet, as I’ve greatly enjoyed being a member of the Apple Consultants Network and all the great work we did together at BFA.

    Apple has been a big part of my life since my first MacBook in 2006, through my year in Apple Retail, and for the last two years as a consultant. I’ve learned so much and it’s shaped my direction for my life pushing my further into technology and teaching me about people’s needs and pain points, ranging from consumer to enterprise. BFA was a great place for me, and I was able to learn alongside some remarkably knowledgable and talented people and interact with fantastic clients every day. They are hands-down the best people for any Apple-related IT questions in the entire Southeast United States. I would trust them implicitly with any work I needed done. I can’t wait to see them continue to grow without me, and I think they’re about to have a couple really explosive years in a row based on where things are right now.

    So why did I leave? It all boils down to the fact that I want to be working on product instead of services. I had learned most of the things about technology consulting that interested me, and was ready to move on to creating something repeatable in software rather than solving existing problems. I’ve always been good at dealing with clients and helping people understand technology, but the challenges associated with building a product are more exciting to me, so I’ve found a happy medium at TourBuzz where I’ll be leading all customer support while I get to help a product develop over time. We make a platform for real estate photographers to host interactive virtual tours, and while I won’t be working on the core product itself, I will be the voice of the company to our users and will be able to have direct input into future development. That’s a combination of responsibility and blue-sky creativity I’ve been searching for.

    I’m one week in and very happy. Our office is on Seminole Ave, just south of Ponce. I’ll be moving into my new apartment just around the corner at the beginning of May, so lots of things are changing, but all for the better.

    I’m very happy.

  11. Sittin’ on the dock of the bay.

    Sittin’ on the dock of the bay.

  12. Mourning Aaron Swartz.

    The passing of Aaron Swartz is a tragedy of monumental proportions. When the news first came in of his death, I hadn’t even heard his name, but in researching him, I was swiftly and deeply saddened. His legacy is a great one, even at the young age of 26. As someone who is fanatically concerned with the freedom of information and open access to human knowledge, I grieve the loss of one of our champions. For more information about Aaron and his accomplishment, I highly recommend Cory Doctorow’s comments on the matter.

    MIT has ordered an internal investigation into the Institute’s role in Aaron’s prosecution and harassment by the US Department of Justice. The DOJ has formally dropped all pending charges against Aaron Swartz.

    [UPDATE]: Westboro Baptist Church [sic] has disgustingly announced its plans to picket and protest Aaron’s funeral. Anonymous has responded, and plans to defend the funeral against the WBC protesters as part of #OpAngel.

    [UPDATE 2]: WBC has dropped plans to protest Aaron’s funeral after learning of Anon’s plans to stop them.

  13. In the heavens.  (at All Saints Roman Catholic Church)

    In the heavens. (at All Saints Roman Catholic Church)

  14. A Future Without Physical Media

    In recent releases of Mac hardware, Apple has been gradually dropping support for optical media drives (CD/DVD drives), and with the rise of the tablet computer as a replacement for traditional [sic] PCs, we’re all learning how to live without our precious stack of floppies. These days, everything can be streamed, synced, and even charged without wires and the expansion of wireless and cellular networks has brought us instant access to music and video on demand to all our devices.

    Just as computers and the internet have dramatically reduced our reliance on paper records, the new storefronts that have arisen online are gradually killing off physical media as a method of data transfer (we still need storage, and increasingly, more of it). Optical media and even USB thumb drives are being discarded in favor of download codes (ironically, often printed on paper).

    Where does this leave us, then? What will we have to show our children and future generations? Who will step forward to archive and curate the massive amounts of data we each generate? Will people travel from around the world visit The External Hard Drive of Alexandria? Unlikely.

    Records matter, and ours are getting harder to keep track of and manage as file formats slip into obscurity, hard drives corrupt, and we rely on networks to be active to even view our own data. Wars will come, and data centers will be destroyed. Data will be lost for all time, as has happened throughout history, but never before in such quantities. Years of personal and public history can be erased if the correct set of buildings are destroyed, or if other, newer forms of weaponry are used. The bomb of the future may simply be a computer virus that silently sneaks across data networks, awaiting zero hour and shutting down infrastructure.

    We’ve already begun to see examples of this, like Stuxnet, and we will see more soon. This isn’t the cry of the luddite, or a warning, it’s just an observation on our inevitable future. As a comedian, my joke and sketch ideas are distributed across iOS Notes, Evernote, Moleskine notebooks, scraps of paper, and a few audio recordings. I keep trying to pull it all together, but no system works perfectly for me and none of them are immune to failure and loss. The irony is not lost on me that I’m writing this brief essay online and am trusting someone else’s servers to keep it safe for me. It’s an adage as old as language itself, but next time, if you want to remember something, and especially if you want anyone else to remember it, maybe just write it down.

    (originally posted at sam.position.cc)

  15. Old Riverside Drive.  (at Riverside Drive)

    Old Riverside Drive. (at Riverside Drive)